Mixing up the Medicine
Robbie & Levon on the Basement Tapes
by John HarrisFrom Mojo, December 2003. The text is copyrighted, please do not copy or redistribute.
Interview with Robbie Robertson
The Basement Tapes, then, I guess we should go back to the beginning.
"We were all - the guys in The Band and Bob - living in New York City. After we finished that tour, with Bob [i.e 1966 world tour], it was like, 'Now we're going to concentrate on putting together the material for our album.' Nobody knew exactly what we were going to do - including us. And we couldn't make any real strides on it in the city. We couldn't find a place where we could make enough noise, without disturbing people, we couldn't afford anywhere.so Albert Grossman suggested that we consider moving up to Woodstock. He said, 'Up there, you'll be able to find a place, and you'll be able to make all the noise you want.'"
And have a home, too, right? It seems that you were pretty much itinerant at the time.
"Well, I was living in the Chelsea Hotel. And a couple of the other guys were staying with girlfriends and friends and stuff like that. When he suggested this, we were at a real point of frustration. So I went up to Woodstock, and I was living at Bob's house up there. And I got a feel of the place."
How was Bob?
"How was he? He was okay, except he had a big, like, cast around his neck. A brace. He was working on editing Eat The Document. I went up to stay at his place, and he got kind of tired of doing that, so then I worked on the film with this Editor friend of ours, Howard Alk.
"In the meantime, I was checking out the Woodstock vibe, and I told the rest of the guys that we could definitely do what Albert was suggesting: we could definitely find a place up there."
Did the fact that it was rural play a big role in your thoughts?
"Not really. It just was the musical convenience that we needed and that we could afford. So Rick Danko and Richard Manuel came up, and they went househunting. And by then, I had found a place that I was staying at. And they found this ugly pink house up in the middle of nowhere - where we would not even have to think about disturbing anybody or anybody disturbing us. We could really have the privacy.
"So Rick and Richard and Garth lived in this house. And downstairs, we started putting some of our gear: we set up a little rehearsal situation. And then Garth hooked up this little tape recorder that we had - a little quarter track model. And we had a mixer: just the most basic things, some of the microphones from the tour, whatever we could put our hands on, we just slapped together. We put a little rug down on the floor.
"But it was everything that you're not supposed to do, in putting together a place to record something. It was all concrete blocks, and a cement floor, and this big metal oil furnace, for heating the house - all these hard surfaces. Whenever you went to a studio, they always had things baffled, and corked, and soundproofed -- all soft surfaces. This was the opposite of all that."
What were the dimensions of The Basement?
"There was an area at the bottom of the stairs that seemed like the biggest space that didn't have anything interfering in it. There'd be poles to hole the house up, and the furnace. We just set up our gear there, and Garth had the equipment behind his organ. We got this set-up.
"We started messing around with it, and as we went along, we fine tuned it a little bit, so it was more comfortable. And we could get things down on tape. We weren't concerned about quality or anything -- we were just concerned about not forgetting some stuff. I told Bob that we had this set-up out there, and it felt pretty good in this place. He came out and looked at it, and just liked the vibe of the place. And by this time, he was pretty well recuperated. I'm sure he was still kind of sore; a little bit stiff. I remember him moving his neck around, just trying to swivel on his neck.
"But we started working on some stuff, and he would come out once in a while, and just hang out. Upstairs, we had a couple of checker boards set up. There were a lot of heated checker games going on up in the living room. Up there, we had things to listen to music, and play checkers -- and outside there was this great big yard, where we could go out and throw around a football and get a little fresh air. The whole set-up of the thing really felt unusually fresh for us. We had never had anything like that before. It was like a clubhouse. A workshop. And we would go, every day, to the clubhouse, the same way as guys in the Mafia would go to their clubhouse. Or a street gang: I remember in these old movies like The Dead End Kids, they always had a clubhouse they would go to every day. It resembled that to me -- except that it was out in the woods.
"We just got in the habit of going there every day and doing some work. And it just started to involve into the songs from Music From Big Pink. And after a while, Bob started coming: he really liked the vibe, and he couldn't hang around his house all day. It was a place to go. He came there, and heard some of the things we started recording there -- just having some fun, it wasn't like we got real serious yet -- and said, 'Well, I wanted to write some songs for other people to record.'
"Sometimes we would record things, and he'd say, 'Okay, well that one would be a good one for Ferlin Husky.' The whole thing was done with a certain amount of humour. The mood there was never real serious. We did a lot of laughing putting down those songs. We were just having a good time -- because there was no pressure that you had to get this done or that done. There was no clock on the wall. Nothing. It just became our natural routine."
What you just said the was very interesting. The underlying purpose of The Basement Tapes has always ben a little unclear- but it seems that Bob was purposely writing songs for other people.
"Well, we would lay something down, and then he would, in fun, pick somebody's name, and he'd say, 'Okay, that's a great one for the Everly Brothers. Let's send that to them.' Sometimes it would have nothing whatsoever to do with that artists: it was just a funny idea."
There are a lot of cover versions on the tapes.
"In the midst of all of this... you know, Bob and the rest of the guys -- we had come from very different musical backgrounds. We were messing around with covers of old rockabilly and R'n'B tunes, or blues things -- and Bob was playing a lot of folk songs that we'd never heard: songs from the British Isles, like the Royal Canal, songs that we didn't know. A lot of times, he would play one of these songs, and we didn't know whether this was an old song or a song that he had written. And he would tell us.
"So we were learning more about folk music - and as our whole relationship went on, from the beginning, I was playing certain things for Bob that I didn't think he'd come across: maybe some obscure tracks by the Impressions, particular blues tracks, or mountain music."
There's a gorgeous version of The Impressions' People Get Ready on one of the bootlegs.
"Probably. I don't remember all the songs any more. I was actually just up in Toronto, because I'm in the midst of putting together this real definitive collection of The Band. We've come across a lot of previously unreleased things, and obscure things. It's being done right -- once and for all, finally. I've never really liked what was done in the past.
"Garth Hudson still has all the original tapes from this time - and while I was there, I heard a bunch more stuff that I hadn't heard before, that weren't recorded in the Basement. They were recorded in different places we had in Woodstock. On some of it, the quality is very poor- but there's also some very funny things. It seems like this goes on forever [Laughs]."
Was there a sense of taking the original songs to completion? Did you listen to playbacks a lot?
"Not really. We had no idea that anybody was ever going to hear this stuff. The stuff that we were doing with Bob was strictly for the publishing company. And when this stuff was sent to the publishing company, from there, it got out. I guess the publishing company would send these tapes -- or whatever they sent out in those days -- to different artists or whoever. That's when it became the first bootleg thing on this level that had ever existed."
Listening to the bootlegs, it strikes me that, broadly speaking, there were three kinds of original songs. First, extended jokes like See You Later Allen Ginsberg...
"See You Later Allen Ginsberg - nobody was supposed to hear that! Allen was a friend of ours. No-one wanted to do anything Allen might take the wrong way [laughs]."
And second, songs that were a little more worked-out like Get Your Rocks Off and Bourbon Street, and then the really together things like This Wheel's On Fire, Nothing Was Delivered, etc. etc. Is that how you see it?
"No. There was no difference in any of these things. And the arrangements: there were no arrangements. It was just sitting down and playing them. We never dreamt anybody would hear these things. That's why there were no arrangements: nothing was worked out, it was just whatever happened. Sometimes we would play them two or three times, just to get a complete take, or try something in a different rhythm - just anything to make us feel like, 'Okay, that's good enough.'"
At the end of The Basement Sessions, did you have a sense that you were leaving a body of work behind?
"No. Because we were very young, and heading into the wild blue yonder. It was, 'What comes next?' Nobody was thinking about archival attitudes then."
Did you not think about what would happen to the songs?
Albert Grossman put the cream of the material on a 14-track acetate. Were you aware of that?
"When you say that, I do recall something of that -- but we were thinking about what we were doing, not what we had done. And we were concentrating on honing this thing: taking this vibe that we had discovered in the Basement. The way that we played in the Basement had nothing to do with the way we had played with Bob Dylan on the tour or any of the recordings we had done together. It had nothing to do with the way we'd played as The Hawks, or the way we'd played with Ronnie Hawkins. It was a whole new persona. We didn't realise that, it just turned out that it was.
"With Ronnie Hawkins, a lot of the music we played was very fast and violent, and very youthful and explosive. And when we left Ronnie and it was just the Hawks, we were playing more down and dirty kind of music: more blues, more Mississippi-influenced stuff. And when we hooked up with Bob, because it was a whole new thing for him, we played with these certain dynamics. When he was singing, we had a certain level that we played at -- and in the instrumental sections, it just kind of blew up.
"From playing in the Basement, we very much had to balance the music off of one another. If you played too loud, it was just annoying, 'cos it was all concrete, right? It hurt your hears, bouncing off the furnace and everything. So we learned to play in the room. The vocal had maybe a little bit of amplification, and maybe not, so we had to play so we could hear the voice. And then subtleties came into the music: it had this kind of timeless spirit to it. And when we would play on acoustic instruments, upstairs in the living room, there was a whole different balancing thing going on. Unconsciously, we took all that, and incorporated it into Music From Pig Pink. It's played in the same way."
Did you have a sense, at the time, of the impact of Music From Big Pink?
"When Music From Big Pink came out, people acted like, 'What planet are these people from?' We were like, 'What are you talking about? This just all these musics that we play -- that's what we're supposed to do.'"
Did you have a sense of wanting to kick everyone away from psychedelia?
"Not really. We were doing what we thought was honest, and trying to be true to ourselves. We'd been woodshedding a long time. And a lot of these other groups that we were hearing, playing the kind of music you're talking about, it sounded like they had just got their musical instruments for Christmas. It wasn't soulful music. It didn't have depth, timelessness to it. We didn't know those terms back then, but instinctively -- in the heart of our musicality -- that's how it struck us. And when we did something we liked, it was because it pushed those buttons."
When did you start to get a sense of the way your peers had greeted the record?
"Well, A lot of musicians said, 'Oh my god - this record changed my life.' We were very much like, '[Incredulously] In a good way?' Eric had told me, 'I heard this record, and I decided I was going to pack it in with Cream.' I thought, 'Really? I kind of like Cream.' He said, 'No, it doesn't work for me any more.' I thought, 'That's strange. I hope this thing is a positive thing.' But a lot of musicians said it was revolutionary. It influenced a lot of people, much to our surprise.'"
Why did you finally prepare some of The Basement Tapes for official release in 1975?
"Just because the fuss kept going on about this, and we got tired of hearing these things presented in such terrible quality, ten generations down. The original tapes sounded better than that, so we thought, 'Shouldn't we put out some of this stuff properly?' There was all this material sitting around, gathering dust, that had never been properly presented to the public."
What governed your choice of tracks?
"We considered everything - but it was vinyl then, so we could only fit so much on there. It was like, 'Bob - would you rather have this one or that one?'"
Do you think more of the material will officially see the light of day?
"I guess it's a possibility. There's a good chance that'll probably happen."
Interview with Levon Helm
What were you doing when the other members of the band first arrived in Woodstock?
"I was down in Arkansas, playing around with the Cate Brothers and some other friends of mine. For me, it was a matter of us getting back to our thing. Playing with Bob at the time [i.e during the '66 world tour] was a little bit hard to stomach. But we got back to what we wanted to do, and Bob took us to songwriting school there at Big Pink... we got two and half records' worth of music outta there, and Bob got maybe the same amount. The outtakes ended up being marketed as The Basement Tapes years later, so... it was a good musical spot for us."
What were your first impressions of Woodstock?
"Pretty much in general, I loved it. A quiet country town.not much not to like."
According to existing accounts, most of the Basement Tapes had been recorded by the time you arrived...
"No. We were getting started on that stuff. Some of it was recorded, but I'd say two thirds of it was still left to do."
There aren't that many tracks with drums on them, are there?
"Well, the ones that had drums.I've never listened to what's on there and what's not. You may be right: there may be more stuff with drums than without drums. I don't remember."
Can you describe the basement?
"Yeah. It was just your regular Basement, you know. We had an outside door, a a garage door that we kept sealed up - it was a larger than average room space. It gave us room to get in a circle and set our equipment up. Garth usually had one, maybe two microphones that would be placed closer to the singer than the rest of us, and that was pretty much our recording technique."
What was your understanding of what was going to happen to the songs?
"We were just trying to learn how to make music, you know. We had never gone through that sort of situation: we had never tried to put original songs together. We'd spent our whole time playing for dances, repeating popular songs. For the first time, we were trying to come up with musical ideas and stitch them together. It was a whole lot of fun. A brand new experience.
And Bob was like a teacher - you think you learned a lot from him.
"You bet I do. You bet I do. I've never heard of another situation that was quite like it. We would get together two, three, four times a week -- sometimes every day -- and go down and play, and the songs would pour out of Bob [laughs]. The rest of us would sit around in amazement at this. We caught ourselves helping him, trying to put some music underneath it. It was a hell of an experience."
You were playing all kinds of songs...
"One of the things that we were trying to do was learn how to sound good together. All of a sudden, we had to come up with all the vocals. We had never learned how to blend our voices. So that was a lot of what we were doing. We would take standard songs -- In The Pines, right? -- and we would sing those kind of songs, and take turns singing the lead, and the others would practice the harmonies, and we would try and come up with harmony blends that we could put behind Bob's voice.and we had our hands full [laughs]. We certainly weren't Crosby, Stills And Nash. We would record things, and immediately go over it and re-record things. We didn't have to play things for people until we liked them ourselves."
How did the way the five members of the band played together change?
"We were probably learning more about blending acoustical and electrical music, as we were learning anything. That was going on. The physical measurements of the place dictated how close we were to one another. And we had to be playing quiet enough that we could hear our voices. It was all good for us."
There are reels and reels of tape...
"There were. And a lot of it, we would re-record, if it was too funny or too embarrassing. That was more raw tape for us."
There's a lot of goofing around on the Basement Tapes...
And there were a lot of laughs.
"Yeah, boy [laughs]. No fun, no work was our policy."
Do you recall Eric Clapton visiting Woodstock in late '68?
George Harrison also came to town around this time.
"Same deal. George was certainly one of the easiest-going, nicest people that I ever got to meet. I was always amazed at how outgoing and friendly he was. George would make it easy to get to shake hands with him.But at the same time, George came to Woodstock to visit Bob, and I was glad to get to meet him."
"Procol Harum came to town one time. And Procol Harum came to see The Band. We had a good old drunken time. Best bunch of guys: they were as bad as we were, for wanting to hang out and laugh and have a drink, and have some fun. We fitted well together, and we had one hell of a night in Woodstock. I think all of us were hungover so much the next day that they kinda limped on out of town and we kinda limped back to bed. But boy, we painted the town rosy. It used to be flattering to me, to be compared with Procol Harum, and we got that compliment a lot: we had the double keyboards, and Richard's voice was alot like that guy Gary's. That both had that soulful, R'n'B type of a voice. I'm trying to remember the drummer's name, dammit. Me and him buddied up right away, and we had a good time. I always thought they were great."